Unitarian Universalists put faith in advertising

As a melting-pot faith that holds no creed and welcomes all comers, the Unitarian Universalist church hasn’t always seen much need to evangelize.

But as the atheists, Christians, humanists and Buddhists in its pews grow older and with the church growing only at a trickle, Unitarians are experimenting with a different approach.

The Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations this year launched its first national advertising campaign, placing ads in Time magazine. In another first, the church is sponsoring an ad that will appear in the programs given to college football fans at 13 bowl games.

The church also has expanded its number of campus ministries from a handful to more than 200, association president Rev. William Sinkford said in a phone interview.

Unitarian leaders say the newfound, not-quite-full embrace of evangelism was brought about by a cultural shift among its membership and the realization that too many outsiders were unaware of what the church has to offer.

“We have allowed this wonderful faith community to be the best-kept secret in town for too long,” Sinkford said. “We have come to understand that we’re called to make Universal Unitarianism available to those yearning for a liberal religious home.”

The relatively small association, born from the 1961 marriage of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, has 250,000 members at about 1,040 self-governing congregations in the U.S. An ideological tug-of-war between the two founding bodies is partly to blame for the church’s reluctance to advertise, some pastors said, but many believe the church has been held back by being “skeptical of business practices.”

“It’s generally been a cultural thing,” said Rev. Dan Larsen of the Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock. “Even now, not everybody is real interested in attracting other people. They figure if someone is interested in what I’m doing, they’ll come in.”

Larsen said some of the 200 members in his church, founded in 1865 as a Congregational church but Unitarian for the last 40 years, also fear losing the sense of family if the church grows much larger. But he supports the evangelism efforts, even preaching how-to sermons on the topic in July.

“We need to ask why we want to attract other people,” Larsen said. “I think the reason has to be, we feel that we have an important message — that we need to make a difference in the world with our lives.”

To that end, the church has picked a handful of social issues where it wants to make an impact. Unitarians have pushed for broader acceptance of the gay, lesbian and transgender community, putting this into practice by ordaining them as clergy. The church also lobbies for environmental protections and against the war in Iraq.

“We have a message and a philosophy that welcomes all, in times where there is a lot of polarization about religion,” said Rev. Nina Grey, senior minster at First Unitarian Church, begun in 1836 and now in Hyde Park. “I think it is part of our desire to be radically hospitable.”

The church’s year-end holiday services are a reflection of that inclusiveness, combining aspects of Kwanzaa, Christmas, winter solstice and Hanukkah.

First Unitarian Church is one of the few models of racial integration in the predominantly white faith. Pastors said the church has made strides — Sinkford is the group’s first African-American president — but still has a long way to go.

Unitarianism has a much better track record of bringing women into leadership positions. More women than men now lead its congregations.

But ideological inclusiveness can be a drawback for people who walk through the church’s doors looking for ultimate truth. Rev. Jennifer Owen-O’Quill, 37, minister at Second Unitarian Church in Lakeview, said all that diversity can leave people feeling lost.

“We’re going to give you the opportunity to explore all the religious wisdom in all the world — and good luck,” she said. “That doesn’t really help people form themselves as religious people.”

Owen-O’Quill, who has seen her congregation grow from about 180 to more than 300 in her six years as pastor, comes from a more Protestant-leaning wing of the faith and said she thinks the church should talk more openly about God.

Her husband, David, 36, is on the front lines of the church’s new efforts at evangelism. The Meadville Lombard Theological School graduate is working to “plant” a new Unitarian church called Micah’s Porch but is taking an unusual approach: holding meetings in coffee shops and bars.

He is encouraged by the church’s efforts to evangelize, saying he believes the church had lost touch with the practical, emotional side of faith.

“I think our churches became comfortable and inward focused and resembled philosophical debating clubs more than churches,” he said. “A message of a loving God that embraces the whole human family is one that needs to be heard.”

Such views remain controversial for many Unitarians.

When Sinkford suggested in a speech in Texas a few years ago that the church needed to reclaim the language of reverence and holiness from conservative Christians, it sparked much debate that he was trying to shoehorn God back into every Unitarian church. Sinkford said that was not his intention.

Whatever their views on God, Unitarian pastors say one of their biggest struggles is to bring in “the unchurched.” These are people with no religious background who may agree with much of their philosophy but see no need for church.

“The thing about religious practice is the things we learn in community are things we can’t learn on our own,” Jennifer Owen-O’Quill said. “And we take care of each other.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday December 30, 2007.
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